Written by Ash Tomkins
Content warning: This article contains discussion of racism, discrimination and white supremacist imagery.
The history of the United Kingdom’s glorified empire, and colonisation is long and extensive. Many creatives, intellectuals and artists have been left out of canonical narratives, as well as the realities of the empire’s dark past. We are only now uncovering in-depth contemporary histories that are hauntingly still occurring today.
On 22 June 1947, HMT Empire Windrush departed from Jamaica and arrived at Tilbury Docks, with roughly 492 West Indians aboard, marking the first post-war wave of mass Caribbean Migration to the UK. After the Second World War, there was a huge influx of immigration from the Commonwealth, encouraged by the UK government which sought to rebuild the economic industry that had been experiencing labour shortages. Migrants from Jamaica and surrounding commonwealth nations were incentivised by more opportunities in the UK, promised prosperity and employment. Many found quite the opposite of this idyllic proposal. Despite being brought up with British education systems, and were legally and culturally British, their arrival was met with hostility and racism. Quickly othered, and considered foreign, many artists, writers and creatives reflected on the colonial discourse of their diasporic heritage.
Dennis Williams, a Guyanese artist who immigrated in 1946 to study in London, created the famous artwork, Human World, in 1950. This piece aptly reflects on the shared migrant experience and existence within London in this period. Articulating the densely crowded street, distinguished desolate faces, painted with sombre tones which gaze beyond the viewer as if moving towards something; the industrial images of London’s skyline, behind the crowd, tower ominously over the composition. This painting hauntingly expresses life of immigrants finding their place in London in 1940’s.
The Windrush generation is a common term heard today, referring to this first wave of commonwealth migrants. At the time of arrival, there were no distinguishing laws between British-born citizens and those elsewhere living in the commonwealth; as citizens of British territories they, rightly, were British.
In the 1960s, the British empire saw mass retaliation; many called it the independence decade for its overseas colonies. In 1962 the Commonwealth Immigrants Act ended the automatic rights for people from the British overseas commonwealth colonies to emigrate and settle in the UK. In 1967 alone, over twenty overseas British territories rejected the empire and were established as independent nations. The 1971 act responded to the 1962 immigration rights act and was established to provide protection for commonwealth citizens if they had lived in the UK for five years, and if they arrived in the UK before 1973. Citizens of the British Empire, whether born in overseas territories or in England, were questioning what it meant to be British, and how the government’s traditional role to protect its people was simultaneously denying them their rights or recognition.
The 1970s was a decade marked by economic upheaval, the post-war boom, war in Vietnam, second-wave feminism, and rise of Thatcherism. The year before she became the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was interviewed in 1978 by Gordon Burns for Granada TV’s World In Action programme:
“Well now, look, let us try and start with a few figures as far as we know them, and I am the first to admit it is not easy to get clear figures from the Home Office about immigration, but there was a committee which looked at it and said that if we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.”
Televised in 1978 on Scottish TV, her speech was repeated in the 1979 election in which she became PM. The term ‘swamping’ was frequently used at this time by the far-right fascist party the National Front and its magazine, Spearhead, to describe the impact of migration since 1970 on culture and the UK’s demographics. The reintroduction of this racist discourse by a prime minister solidified the structural racism omnipresent in UK politics. These Conservative perceptions of ‘Britishness’ ignore colonial heritage that stakes claim to that same heritage. This is the legacy of imperialism and empire, the exhaustive expansion of Britain.
Eddie Chambers’ Destruction of the National Front (1979) depicts the destruction of the Union Jack shaped as a swastika – ripped, torn and reorganized. Directly referencing the symbol of the Nazi party, situating the UK’s policies against those of such a recognisable image offers direct comparison. Throughout the 1970s, the National Front’s policies established the Union Jack as a symbol of white supremacy and white Britain. Chambers identifies the similarities in history between immigration policy, the idea of the purity of a nation, with that of the Nazis and Hitler. In his own words:
“When the work was made, the National Front had a very strong presence and the streets of Wolverhampton, where I grew up, were festooned with NF stickers declaring ‘If They’re Black, Send Them Back!’ … With such casual, but insistent and explicit ‘in-your-face’ racism, came a range of concerted strategies of combating and resisting that racism [such as] The Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism, etc. It was in this context that my piece was conceived and made. All the students, all the people who saw [the work], could immediately grasp its references. Such was the presence of the NF at the time.”Email correspondence between Chambers and Tate curator Carmen Juliá, 14 November 2012.
Thatcher established, curated and executed a brand of Britishness, and became infamous for her presence in the Falklands, stoking British identity and establishing a nation full of British subjects as an imperialist policy to gain support for her economic policy. However, reading the image left to right, one can interpret Chambers’ work with a strange optimism, channelling motivation to reject the National Front rather than a simple statement; the four panels of this work encourage motion and signal to physical action of ripping, as a visual synonym for the work that must be done in Britain. The 1988 immigration act, however, altered these same rights. Citizens from the commonwealth lost their right to remain indefinitely in the UK after an absence of two years, and furthermore, this act stripped the right of partners and dependants to join them.
In recent years the Windrush scandal dominated headlines, particularly in 2018, where deportations made the spotlight in the media. Gaining global attention, the scandal concerned at least 83 cases of wrongly deported citizens. The scandal continues to impact those who were wrongly detained, denied citizens’ legal rights or were continuously threatened with deportation. Estimates from the Migration Observatory indicate that up to 57000 commonwealth migrants could have been affected.
The origins of the Windrush generation are marked with racial and ethical turmoil. Their impacts and consequences are still alive and continuing today, with migration policies towards western Europe and the current war and migrant crisis in Ukraine up for debate. The nature and tier of ‘Britishness’ remain at the forefront of conversation in British politics today. Migration policies and the relationship to its colonial empire are constantly reinventing new ways of remaining ‘British’.
Feldman, David. “Why immigration policy since 1962 has such a poor record of achievement.” LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, 24 November, 2014. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/talking-the-talk-immigration-policy-since-1962/.
Jones, Daniel. “Swamping and the Migration Debate: The Sound of Silence?” Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, 22 May, 2020. https://www.radicalrightanalysis.com/2020/05/22/swamping-and-the-migration-debate-the-sound-of-silence/.
The National Archives. “Labour shortage and the end of war.” Accessed 27 November, 2022. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/labour-shortage-end-war.htm.
Thatcher, Margaret. “TV Interview for Granada World in Action.” Interview by Gordon Burns. World in Action, Granada TV, 27 January, 1978. Transcript. https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/103485.
Trilling, Daniel. “Thatcher: the PM who brought racism in from the cold.” Verso, 10 April, 2013. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1282-thatcher-the-pm-who-brought-racism-in-from-the-cold.
Walker, Rowan. “Windrush scandal victims to speak up about mental health and trauma.” UCL News, 20 April, 2022. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2022/apr/windrush-scandal-victims-speak-about-mental-health-and-trauma.